Ahimsa, Feline Ethics, The Value of a Life


For better and worse, I have, over the years, held views that are anathema to most people, particularly when it comes to the rights of nonhumans. For example, I consider the following self-evident:

(1) Human life and nonhuman life are of equal intrinsic value. 

(2) Human rights and nonhuman rights are of equal moral importance. 

Such beliefs make moral consistency impossible because humans must kill to live. Even if a person so reveres life that he only eats those parts of plants that don’t require the destruction of the whole, other plants must die and other creatures be driven from their homes in order to make space for agriculture. Some members of the Jain religion become so aggrieved by this that they starve themselves to death.

My cats are so extraordinarily sensitive and loving that I address them with such endearments as Doll, Angel, Heaven, Ecstasy, Lady Girl, All in All, His Holiness, King of my Heart, Most Worshipful Master, He Whom My Love Doth Devour, Most Beautiful Cat in the World, and Patriarch of the Cat Side of the Family. Even so, it bothers me that a cat’s beauty and virtue rest upon a foundation of corpses. Sometimes, I talk to them about this. Yesterday, I brought it up to Ollie during our nightly cuddle, and because he requires that our talks be conducted with the door closed, I learned more from him than I had from others:

Me: “Ollie it troubles me that you just jumped from my lap, killed a spider, and then returned to my lap to tell me of your love with a thousand purrs. Have you no remorse, no consideration for the rights of the little creature whose life you ended?”

Ollie: “Do you mean to say that I am a hypocrite or simply that my behavior is paradoxical?”

Me: “The latter, the fact being that, even when you are dozing, you are but a hair’s breadth from killing. While I too kill spiders, I only do so because they clutter up the house with their webs, and Peggy screams when she sees one. God forbid that a spider should fall on her face while she’s taking a shower or, worse yet, walk across her steering wheel while she’s driving. Decades ago, I caused her to question my devotion to our marriage by announcing that I would no longer kill arachnids. I tried to console her by adding that I would instead ferry them outdoors, but I failed. As it turned out, my plan also failed because, once outside, the spiders went to work building webs under soffits, in front of windows, and on the rear-view mirror of her car. When I observed that they and their offspring were finding their way back in, I returned to killing, often to the accompaniment of Peggy’s screams—screams that scared the dogs as much as the spiders scared Peggy.

“Being a just, loving, and compassionate person, I regret having to kill, whereas you, Ollie, despite your many virtues, take obscene delight in visiting death upon the innocent. If you were human, you would doubtless have a taxidermist mount your victims in fearsome poses and hang them on every wall. Peggy would then scream every time she walked into a room, and you would find yourself in an institution for callous cats. Because of the pleasure you take in killing others, I sometimes wonder if you would kill me if you were big enough.”

Ollie: “Let me get this straight. You knew I was a predator when you adopted me, and that guiltless killing was inherent to my nature. You, on the other hand, are not a predator, yet you find it within your ‘just, loving, and compassionate’ heart to destroy innocent creatures simply because their existence scares your phobic wife and their webs offend your aesthetic sensibilities! You would be better off had you been born a cow or a rabbit, but because you are a peculiar sort of man, you are tormented, and you want me to feel tormented too so I can stand at your feet on your pedestal of moral superiority and proclaim: ‘Oh, what a cruel world it is that loving creatures like ourselves must resort to killing!’ I don’t apologize for being what nature made me. I instead take pride in the fact that I can instantly go from loving to killing and back again because that is how my ancestors survived.”

Because Peggy and I are, for the most part, vegetarians, Ollie doesn’t realize that, like cats, most members of the human species also kill helpless birds and animals, although their killing differs from cats’ killing in that cats are obligate carnivores, whereas meat is so toxic to humans that meat-eaters die eight years younger than vegetarians.*

If the Abrahamic religions are correct in maintaining that humans alone know right from wrong, it is also true that humans alone choose to inflict avoidable suffering, death, and environmental damage simply because we enjoy the taste of corpses. In what way, then, is the only species that knows right from wrong, yet freely embraces wrong, superior to a species that lacks such knowledge and whose existence depends upon meat? We humans—including people like myself who eat eggs, dairy, and the occasional fish—not only tend toward depravity, we run headlong into it. I envy cats their innocence.